7 min read

Google is changing the face of ecommerce

Google is building the world’s largest product ecosystem. Whether its product research, product discovery, or even transacting on Google, you don’t need to leave. And they don’t want you to.

Google’s most recent leap in this journey is the introduction of free product listings to search results on the Google Shopping tab. Starting in the US, Google Shopping will become part of the Google surfaces program, allowing users to see free products listings in Google Web Search, Google Images and Google Lens. 

Like Amazon, Google wants to become the shopping destination. But to achieve their ambitions, they’ve got some catching up to do. According to eMarketer, 47% of internet users start their product searches on Amazon, compared to only 35% on Google. Amazon has a fierce competitive advantage in its diverse product selection, convenient shipping, and effective feedback loop but how long will that last?

Google has data on their side. For businesses and users alike, data is the cost of using their free products; each with at least 1 billion active monthly users. For organic shopping, this exchange means free access to millions of users for retailers and higher usage and more data for Google.

Until now, Google’s shopping offering has been limited by their commercial model. In 2012, they made a decision to transition from Google Product Search to a purely commercial model in product listings ads.

Officially, this change was motivated by building a better shopping experience. The thinking was that a commercial relationship with merchants would encourage higher quality product data, meaning higher quality traffic for merchants. Despite this, some believe the change was driven by greed and has ultimately led to Amazon’s dominance in ecommerce.

Where is Google headed?

Is Google backtracking on their decision in 2012? Perhaps. Nonetheless, I’m extremely excited by the latest changes. Opening up to all merchants will add a new facet of search engine optimisation.

The shopping tab won’t become the destination for shoppers, but Google Search will. Google has been cleverly integrating all of its various surfaces into web search, from images, shopping, videos, maps and news, in the last several years. With developments in structured data and a greater understanding of search queries, organic product search features such as research and refinement carousels have proliferated on Google Search.

In the US, there are even more organic product search features. A study by Brodie Clark on Search Engine Land found three organic search features that aren’t currently available in the UK.

1. Popular products

2. Best products

3. Similar products

Google is looking to roll out free product listings to the shopping tab globally by the end of the year, so I’d expect to see these product carousels among others in the UK soon. 

In the study, there was anecdotal evidence to suggest that visibility increased in such carousels when real-time product information was submitted via the Merchant Centre. Google wants high quality product data and for now, product feeds are the best way to do this. 

The advent of free listings in the shopping tab will mean more product feed data from merchants, which will make it easier for Google to introduce more organic product search features.

In the next year or two, we can expect to see organic shopping grids in search and further interconnections of shopping and search. Product search features tend to keep users in the Google ecosystem, which is great for advertising revenues and even better for Google if it grows its viability as a marketplace.

What should retailers do?

To rank your products organically across all of Google’s surfaces, there are two key things you should be thinking about:

1. Submitting your product data

To maximise your visibility on free product listings in shopping and to future-proof your organic product visibility across all Google surfaces, invest your time in structured data and your product feed.

Implementing structured data

In a product context, Google uses structured data to better understand your products and validate your feed. Structured data is a type of markup, most typically schema.org vocabulary, used to annotate attributes of your product. As a requirement, you need to markup the following properties: 

  • Your product name
  • Product image(s)
  • Your product reviews (either review, aggregateRating or offers properties)

Check out Google’s product structured data guide for more recommended properties. Following that, make sure your structured data is valid and adheres to Google’s guidelines by using Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool. 

Structured data provides the foundations for visibility across the Google surfaces programme. In fact, even though it’s strongly recommended, you don’t need a product feed to show your products across surfaces.

Combine your product feeds with structured data

Provide Google with as much information as possible about your products. The more information Google has, the more likely your products will be featured in visually rich product results and a greater volume of shopping results.

Feeds and structured data compliment each other. Structured data helps to reduce Merchant Center account suspensions and disapprovals while also maintaining your feed automatically. 

Share your product feeds

Shopping feeds have been typically managed by paid search teams. The reliance on product feeds for organic product listings will mean more crossover than ever before between SEO and paid teams. If your teams are disjointed, you’ll lose. You must treat search holistically if you’re going to manage your shopping campaigns successfully. 

What does this mean in practice? Share everything and manage budgets fluidly. Some examples of this include: 

  • Use paid experience: your paid team has expertise in product feed management. Use it. Collaborate with your paid team to use their systems and product feed management tools. If you’ve already got shopping feeds, continue to let your paid team manage them – they’ll just need to opt into the surfaces program.
  • Unify your reporting: soon, Google will be rolling out a new performance report for surfaces across Google in Merchant Center where unpaid clicks will be reported. Build out unified reporting using this data, so both SEO and paid teams can attribute clicks and conversion accurately.
  • Experiment together: run shared experiments across your product feeds. Optimising product titles for colour variants for example, may have a significant impact on organic performance even if it hasn’t driven results on shopping ads before. 

Thoughts on the future of organic product data

Google has already said that they’re working to significantly streamline the onboarding process over the coming months for new merchant users but what should you prepare for long-term? If Google really wants to scale the surfaces program, the input methods for feeds need to be significantly easier – automated in fact. 

APIs are the future. The content API for shopping can already do almost everything the Merchant Center website does, but programmatically. Google Shopping apps for Shopify sit between your website and Merchant Centre and automatically sync your products, while also allowing you to customise product information for Google Shopping. As platforms improve and information is shared instantaneously, will feed imports become redundant? 

2. Understanding product ranking systems

Adding free product listings to Google Shopping removes the auction from the ranking system. Unfortunately, all we know of the rest of the ranking system is that Google uses relevancy to determine rank. 

Google doesn’t disclose a quality score for Google Shopping, so it’s difficult to understand what they mean by ‘relevancy’. Their best practices do, however, provide some clarity on what they recommend. 

Optimise product titles

Much like organic search results, Google Shopping recommends product titles include important attributes such as brand and colour, so that your listings can easily be matched to search queries and results are attractive to users. 

  • Include important attributes in your title
  • Put key details at the front of your product title

Provide complete product data

Google needs as much data as possible about your products, so that they can understand whether they’re relevant to search queries and product categories.

  • Submit all the required attributes listed under product data specification
  • Provide the most detailed product_type values that you have and use google_product_category values that are at least 2-3 levels deep

Improve landing page experience

Ensure your product landing pages are relevant for the search queries you want to rank for. They should also be consistent with your feed data, so that they’re relevant to the listing.

  • Pre-select the correct product variant in your landing page URL
  • Use structured data to indicate price, availability, and unique product identifiers such as GTIN, brand, and MPN
  • Clearly show the product price on the landing page
  • Always show key elements of your product including title, description, image, price, currency, availability and a buy button. 

If you’re running shopping campaigns, most of these best practices will already be covered by your paid team.

With organic product listings set to increase exponentially in the next year, will relevancy be in enough to compete? No. You’ll have to do more. Google will need an organic ranking system that provides the best results for users.

Building reputation with reviews

To understand what other factors Google might consider as part of their Shopping ranking system, there are a few places you can look:

Amazon’s feedback loop

While Amazon’s A9 algorithm is not as sophisticated as Google’s search algorithm, nor does it need to be, it can give us some hints about what’s coming. Reviews play a significant part in their system.

Amazon has one of the most effective feedback loops. It uses automatic follow-up emails to encourage shoppers to leave a review and has programs such as Amazon Vine to incentivise users to leave a review.  

Google on reputation

The next place you can look is Google’s Search Quality Rater Guidelines. Google has a team of external raters that follow comprehensive guidance from Google about how to evaluate their search results. This helps to review search engine quality and ultimately helps shape their algorithms.

Google places a lot of emphasis on store reputation. They state that ‘reputation is based on the experience of real users’ and ‘consider a large number of positive user reviews as evidence of positive reputation.’ 

When advertising on Google Shopping, reviews are already encouraged. Google has a seller ratings program which collects review data from Google Customer Reviews, their own free review platform, and 30 independent review websites. 

How you should collect reviews

Across free product listings, we know reviews will play their part. Unlike Amazon, Google can aggregate reviews from millions of third parties that implement structured data. For free product listings, the same visibility requirements for selling ratings may not apply. We see this already in review rich results where the same volume of reviews needed to display as the selling ratings program doesn’t apply.

Here are my recommendations:

  1. Invest in a review platform if you don’t already have one. Reviews build trust and confidence and it’s what Google wants. Your website is usually the best place to start collecting feedback.
  2. Build a feedback loop. Learn from Amazon and automate your review process while developing initiatives to reward users who leave reviews.
  3. Ensure to add structured data. Structured data is needed for reviews to appear in rich results and helps Google aggregate the data. Read Google’s product markup requirements to understand how to implement it.
  4. Get reviews from multiple sources. In some of the product carousel examples from the US, it’s difficult to determine how Google is aggregating the review data. One thing’s for certain – it’s coming from a ton of different sources, including affiliates. The carousel below displays multiple articles reviewing a particular product. Not only will it pay to get users to review your products, but trusted authorities too. 

Preparing for change

Free product listings are another step in Google’s evolving product ecosystem. While it’ll unlikely increase clicks to the shopping tab, I’m optimistic that, with more data, Google can integrate more organic product features into search. 

We don’t yet know how Google will rank organic product listings: in the shopping tab, or in product carousels, but you can use indicators and research to get prepared early for when the changes roll out globally. 

Prepare for this change now – get in touch with our Shopping Feed Management team if you need a Google product feed to be created, or if you have one but is not optimised to best practice standard.

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